This artist was unknown until 1943, when a New York art gallery discovered a portfolio of her drawings. Mary Ann Willson is now regarded as one of the earliest American watercolorists, along with Eunice Pinney of Connecticut.
An anonymous letter written in 1850 and signed by "an admirer of art" accompanied the drawings. It relates that Willson and a Miss Brundage moved to Greenville, New York, in about 1810. The two women pioneers built a log cabin, and while Brundage farmed the land, Willson painted pictures that she sold to nearby farmers. The letter claims that her watercolors were sold from Canada to Mobile, Alabama.
Willson used brightly colored paints made from berry juice, vegetable dyes, and brick dust. Untrained, she drew images from popular prints in a bold, simple style. Her series of scenes from the tale of the Prodigal Son illustrates a story popular among American settlers.
At the death of Brundage, Willson is said to have been inconsolable and to have disappeared shortly afterward. The last of her known works was completed in 1825.
[This is an excerpt from the interactive companion program to the videodisc American Art from the National Gallery of Art. Produced by the Department of Education Resources, this teaching resource is one of the Gallery's free-loan educational programs.]